Buddhism, Philosophy and Life: Meaning or Experience?

img_1111One of the first glimpses of consciousness—self-consciousness—for any self-respecting member of angst-ridden rebellious existential youth is that, “life has no meaning.” And apparently that is a rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood, as palpable as puberty, as awkward as rolled-up jeans, as unforgiving as suicide–or so I hear…

And there is no certain cure for it, though many treatments have been tried and many medicines prescribed. Until finally the master gurus of my own generation collectively said: “Enough!” and suspended the search until further notice, teachers like my own personal heroes Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts, the more respectable members of a club that included Timothy Leary on one hand and Alan Ginsberg on the other…

They decided that meaning was meaningless and that what we really needed was experience, the experience, that direct unmediated rush of image and emotion that comprised life in the USA in the latter half of the 20th century. Of course this wasn’t really their big idea; they were just echoing what was already going on anyway, and providing some philosophical cover for activities that otherwise and heretofore might be considered reprehensible, and maybe outright dangerous—mostly drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll…

Bliss was currency…

…and getting high was the norm. Joseph Campbell apparently attempted to walk back his “follow your bliss” mantra—claiming he wished he’d advocated ‘blisters’ instead—but by then it was too late. In the blink of an eye, over the course of a decade, hard-working sober money-saving America became ego-bloated, titillated, live-for-the-moment Consumerika…

And now modern thinkers and New Age strategists see ‘nowness’ as some sort of new metaphysical category. ‘Nowness’ is currently popular as the answer to the question: “What’s it all about?” So if I were totally enamored by the ‘now’, then I would have few reasons to complain, but the current obsession with ‘nowness’ is tainted by misunderstanding. The ‘now’ may be all we know, and worthy of our attention, but it’s not all that we can intuit rationally nor prove historically, so not the absolute be-all and end-all…

So the correct answer is maybe not: “the present is all there is.” That is simply not an equation that will pass physics fundamentals. The correct answer is that the present may be all that we can truly absolutely know—and then it’s gone. After that it can be deduced, or redacted, or if the future, then intuited, but never truly known. But by then it’s long since been replaced by another moment of greater or lesser value… 

So it may be time to backtrack. I was in on it, too. As a youth I wanted experience, now I want some explanation, at least, if not absolute Truth. Meaning now makes a comeback, after the psychedelic 60’s, slacker ’90’s and the me me me Millennials, or so it seems, and that is good. Meaning is at best a meta-level of experience, experience distilled and refined for easy access. But can we have both, meaning and experience, in equal portions in easy potions? There may be a way…

Do Everything Halfway…

…absolutely everything, never committing totally to any one thing, but testing the waters, continually and continuously, with a stick or without, changing your mind constantly, as if that were the highest good, to remain forever in motion, forever in transit, like a nomad with an eye-pad, to note and record anything and everything with an eye to the future and an ear to the past, so that if you hear something coming, remember to do nothing—quickly…

I do not mean to be be half-assed at life, but to do everything—that’s the point, and if you’re in too deep, then that can never happen. Theoretically there might be one thing that you should be doing in life, that “the universe want’s to accomplish” through you, per Eckhart Tolle, as if the universe were a person with wants and wishes, the anthropomorphic paradigm, as if the universe were not merely a set of random occurrences, which it likely is…

…though I’d credit individuals and organisms for better than that, in lively opposition to Darwinian evolution, which depends on random mutation, and which I doubt, with nagging suspicion that there is some feedback mechanism for creativity within the bloodline, if not the species, genetic memory or something similar, absence of evidence not equivalent to evidence of absence, and most importantly not equivalent to Lamarckian “inheritance of acquired characteristics” or other such heresy…

But my own current approach to the ‘meaning vs. experience’ debate is mostly informed by Buddhism, in which the distinction is largely empty, and indeed that ’emptiness’ largely defines our lives in this time on this planet, this world of samsara, full of sensory lures and promises, sights sounds smells taste touch, and their logical conclusions: me my mine you yours he she his hers we ours they theirs. There’s only own problem: None of it is really real. It is empty—of substance…

Bottom line: it’s all up to you, as a semi-independent actor on a semi-independent stage. None of us is all-powerful or omniscient, and we can play only a fraction of the hand we’re dealt. But we can likely only play it once, before the equation is changed. So I’d suggest to play it wisely. There’s a fine line to being all you can be, without be unduly obsessed about it. Any meaning that life and the world have, is likely to be what you choose to give them…

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